The Emperor Jones premiered on November 1, 1920 at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village. The play marks a significant turning point in the career of Eugene O’Neill, routinely regarded as America’s greatest playwright. In terms of production history, it was sandwiched between Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie, both of which earned O’Neill Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Both those plays are examples of gritty realism which seeks to replicate the time, setting and situations of their plot.
By contrast, The Emperor Jones represents the playwright’s initiation into Expressionist drama. Highly influenced by German theatre, this style seeks to go beyond mere representative realism to reveal the stage of the unconscious mind through set design, music, lighting and, of course, composition. The result is that the bulk of the play is either literally or metaphorically hallucinatory as a representation of the increasingly tenuous hold on sanity possessed by the main character he tries to escape the murderous intentions of revolutionaries plotting a coup.
One of the earliest reviews of the play described it as a “brutal attack on your nerves.” The beating of a tom-tom drum, the presentation of the title character’s backstory and the history of American slave trafficking writ large presented through imaginary manifestations of the Emperor’s memories and the hyperkinetic psychological disintegration of his character all contribute to a stage presentation is nearly as feverish as Brutus Jones by its climax. All these elements are further intensified by the fact that Jones is the only person on the stage who speaks for the overwhelming majority of the play’s running time.
That role is exhausting and demanding for both actor and audience. Mainstream theater crowds were not used to paying for the privilege of watching a black man almost alone on stage for such an extended period. Keep in mind that even through much of the 20th century, the role of Othello was played by white actors in blackface. Brutus Jones was originated by Charles Gilpin, but it was the 1925 revival that created a superstar.
Paul Robeson took over following following an irreconcilable conflict between Gilpin and O’Neill. Gilpin wanted the extensive use of the N-word removed and O’Neill steadfastly refused. Robeson became an international sensation in the role he seemed born to play. So intertwined is he with the history of The Emperor Jones that he made history himself in 1933 by becoming the first black actor to play the leading role in a mainstream film intended to be seen by mostly white audiences. O’Neill’s play itself is also something of a groundbreaking work of drama: it is perhaps the first stage drama to feature a plainly villainous black man as its protagonist.